Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the man some people in the ANC and government are trying to eject from his job, has the unenviable task of making an announcement in his Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) next week that must defuse the higher education tinderbox. Gordhan has quite a juggling act going, trying to calm investors during a time of turmoil, fend off a ratings downgrade, fight an onslaught from the Hawks and prosecutions authority, and meet his Budget targets. The high education hot potato has now also been dropped in his lap, while the line function minister, Blade Nzimande, and president watch the chaos from a safe distance.
After a month of violent protests on and around university campuses, and talks between management and students having derailed, hope is dwindling for a settlement to the crisis. The list of casualties and arrests is growing as students intensify their protests for “free, quality, decolonised education” and resort to destruction as their demands go unheeded.
Gordhan, like the university vice-chancellors, has little room to manoeuvre. With free education not adopted as government policy – and not likely to be any time soon, according to Nzimande – the finance minister cannot exactly pull a rabbit out of a hat next Wednesday. All he could possibly do, given budget constraints and the parameters of policy, is make funds available for what Nzimande announced in September. Nzimande said then that students who qualify for financial aid from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and those with an annual household income of up to R600,000 would be exempted from a fee increase next year.
“Government will pay for the fee adjustment,” Nzimande announced on September 19, saying Gordhan would announce in the MTBPS where the money would come from. Students roundly rejected the announcement, which fell short of their demand for free education for all, and resumed the #FeesMustFall campaign that began last year.
As protest action intensified last week, Nzimande retreated. Zuma, in a speech at the higher education stakeholder summit on October 3, made it clear that government would work to assist students from poor households. He did not entertain the demand for free education and left the summit without engaging the students.
With no access to the president and the minister, the students have channelled their anger at the vice-chancellors and university property. Many campuses have become occupied territories. The heavy security presence has heightened tensions and has led to daily running battles and police firing rubber bullets and stun grenades indiscriminately, injuring students and bystanders.
The arrest of protest leaders is also raising the temperature, causing further defiance. After a month of disrupted learning, one death, dozens of injuries, millions of rand of damage to property, besieged streets and exhausted protesters and police, there has been no attempt of meaningful intervention from government, the ANC or any opposition party. Because of the complexity of the issues and the fact that young people engaged in a legitimate cause are involved, politicians from across party lines are steering clear of the matter.
No politician wants to get on the wrong side of young activists with mobilisation potential.
On Thursday, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe announced that an inter-ministerial task team that Zuma had set up to deal with the higher education funding crisis would be expanded to include Gordhan, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Zuma responded to the call from the ANC national working committee to include Gordhan and others in the task team, which was initially dominated by the security ministers.
Presenting the outcomes of this week’s Cabinet meeting, Radebe said Zuma broadened the composition of the team “in appreciation of the magnitude of the challenges in higher education”. The team would “bring all stakeholders under one roof to develop a road map that will pave way for a solution”, Radebe said. The presidential commission of inquiry investigating the feasibility of fee-free education was “continuing with its work and will assist government to come up with a long-term solution for access to higher education, particularly for the poor”.
Government task teams are not exactly examples of sterling performance. They are used to buy time and occasionally to firefight. Most of the time, task teams are appointed to give the impression that government is attending to the matter.
The higher education crisis requires, among other things, intervention on the ground to defuse tensions and resume dialogue. Whether Zuma’s crack team would get their hands dirty and go to campuses remains to be seen.
While denouncing the violence, intimidation and the destruction of property, there was no sense of urgency from Cabinet or appreciation of how perilous the situation is. Zuma’s comments at a meeting with South Africa’s diplomats this week exemplified how out of touch he is with the intensity and destructive nature of the protests.
“When people say what is happening in SA? Why these protests? Tell them: that is democracy. Why it looks like the ruling party is fighting? That’s democracy, we’ve got open views. We can speak out… The critical point is that democracy is moving, advancing. I’m saying this because people could worry, could say your country is coming down, but democracy is never coming down,” Zuma rambled.
On Thursday, a group of a few hundred students gathered at the Union Buildings to present their demands to the highest office. The gathering was illegal and while they were initially allowed onto the lawns, stun grenades were fired to disperse the crowd when they refused to hand their memorandum over to an unknown government official.
Anger among students is growing as a month of protest action has yielded no results. Like so many restless and frustrated communities around the country, the feeling is growing that only through heightened violence and desperate measures would they get attention from government. The institutions, meanwhile, are struggling to cope with management taking strain and the police and security having to act as a buffer.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has decided that due to the agitation in society over the state of the economy, the hit on Gordhan, the Public Protector’s report on state capture and the crisis in higher education, it is an opportune time to table another motion of no confidence in Parliament against Zuma. The DA has tried and failed several times to pass a vote of no confidence in Zuma due to the ANC’s majority in the National Assembly. But now that some ANC leaders and Cabinet ministers have come out publicly in support of Gordhan, the DA believes that some ANC MPs would join them in voting Zuma out of office.
“We can’t simply sit by and do nothing because of the risk of the motion not being passed. We cannot render the role of Parliament and the constitutional provisions involved useless. If we did that, we may as well not recognise Parliament at all,” DA leader Mmusi Maimane said. ANC MPs would now have the opportunity to vote against the president and his leadership, he said.
There is of course a greater chance of Zuma inviting Thuli Madonsela to Nkandla for her sabbatical than the DA winning this motion. But politically, what are the options for the opposition except to ratchet up the pressure against Zuma and the ANC in Parliament and the courts?
The pressure point is moving outside organised politics. The support campaign for Gordhan and the student protests are both happening outside political lines. People are acting on their own frustration and anxiety about the future of the country rather than doing what political parties want them to do. The danger of an unorganised rebellion is of course that there are no rules of engagement, no formal leadership and no telling what might happen.
Whoever is writing this all off as the course of a normal democracy is underestimating the sentiment driving the protests. What the past month has done is inflame a new generation of militant activists facing off against the might of the state. That will be difficult to subdue. And once the state starts using excessive force against unarmed civilians, it becomes the norm.
South Africa is in dangerous territory without leadership or direction. An explosion is coming and when it does, nobody will be in control. DM
Photo: A student marches with various other universities to the Union Buildings during ongoing protests against the cost of higher education in Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 October 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
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